You've heard of Catch-22? Meet our Regulation 179
By Oakland Ross
The Star (Toronto), August 3, 2010
Jorge Sanabria did not come to Canada, after all.
The 45-year-old Peruvian development expert had been expected to deliver the keynote speech at a gala dinner June 26 at Wilfrid Laurier University.
Instead, Sanabria spent that evening at his home in Cusco, Peru, along with his wife, Jenny, and their 5-year-old daughter, Gabriela just one more victim of a notoriously opaque piece of bureaucratese that has Canada written all over it.
You've heard of Catch-22? Meet Regulation 179.
It's vague, it's arbitrary, and it is giving this country a bad name.
I think Canada is becoming more difficult to visit, Sanabria said from Cusco. It think its image with foreigners is becoming more and more difficult.
He is not alone.
It's completely arbitrary, said Toronto immigration lawyer Barbara Jackman, referring to the edict. It affects us on so many levels social, humanitarian, cultural, and business.
Regulation 179 is a section of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that authorizes this country's visa officers abroad to reject potential visitors if they believe the applicant might try to stay in Canada.
That is as precise as the statute gets.
The regulation has been in force since June 2002, but its use seems to have become more frequent recently.
I think they've completely become more stringent, said Jackman.
The regulation can be applied to any of the 145 countries whose citizens require visas to visit Canada. It does not affect people from the 53 countries who can visit Canada visa-free for short stays.
Canadian legislators are currently pondering a proposed refugee reform law known as Bill C-11 that might reduce the number of countries that face Canadian visa requirements, or so says Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.
But some immigration lawyers and opposition MPs do not think the new law would work that way.
I do not, said Mario Bellissimo, a Toronto immigration lawyer. At least not initially. I think it would be a long time coming.
Tens of thousands of would-be visitors to Canada are turned away each year under Regulation 179. They get no more explanation than a tick on a box in a one-page form letter.
It is impossible to say precisely how often Regulation 179 is invoked because no one in Ottawa keeps track, according to an official at Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
They do not keep stats on why they refuse, agreed Mario Bellissimo, a prominent Toronto immigration lawyer.
Last year, about five million foreigners came to Canada on temporary visits Nearly a third of them or more than 1.5 million individuals required a temporary resident visa.
Of these applications, exactly 269,614 were turned down, sometimes for a clearly defined reason but in many cases simply because they did not meet the requirements of Regulation 179, which are nowhere written down.
Applicants rejected in this way are typically left mystified, wondering what they did wrong.
It was a very rapid process, said Sanabria. You don't get a visa. Here are your documents.'
No one has suggested his rejection was related in any way to last month's G20 summit in Toronto, which coincided with his planned trip.
What are the criteria? said Olivia Chow, NDP critic for citizenship and immigration. Well, they don't really have any. It's not transparent. You don't know why you're rejected.
Both Regulation 179 and the broader theme of Canadian border control have been under increased scrutiny since 9/11 and, more recently, since Ottawa slapped a visa requirement on Mexico last July to stem a surge in refugee claims by Mexicans.
The visa requirement has dramatically reduced those claims from about 1,000 a month to fewer than 200 but it has also soured relations between the two countries, angering many legitimate Mexican travellers and costing this country tourism revenue.
What constitutes proof under Regulation 179 that a visitor will leave? There's no clear answer.
A spouse? Children? A job? Money in the bank? A return airplane ticket? A supporting letter from a Canadian parliamentarian?
Sanabria satisfied all these conditions, and more, but was nonetheless turned down twice.
It's been a nine- to 10-week process, said Greg Overholt, executive director of Students Offering Support, the NGO that had invited Sanabria to Canada and was to pay all his expenses. I thought we had plenty of time.
Along with his initial visa application, Sanabria provided his passport, a supporting letter from his Peruvian employer, a letter of invitation from Overholt, as well as evidence of his financial and family ties to Peru plus the equivalent of $75, to cover the cost of processing the application.
The embassy in Lima pocketed the $75 and turned him down. That was in April.
Sanabria applied again, this time with more powerful backing a letter of support from Peter Braid, the Conservative MP for Kitchener-Waterloo.
On June 1, Sanabria received a second form letter exactly like the first.
You have not satisfied me that you meet the requirements of Regulation 179, declared the text.
In Waterloo, Overholt was incensed.
This is absolutely ridiculous, he wrote in an email to the Star, that I, a Canadian citizen WITH the written support of our MP can't bring a wonderful man to Canada to inspire our future leaders to be more global citizens.
Ken Tam, a spokesman for Braid, said the matter was now out of the MP's hands.
Jackman and others say Ottawa could make Canada's visa system fairer, and avoid inflicting unnecessary hardship and disappointment on many legitimate travellers, if it introduced a bond mechanism.
Canadians wishing to sponsor visits by friends, relatives, or colleagues from other countries, she said, should be able to post a financial bond, which they would forfeit if the visitor failed to leave.
According to Bellissimo, countries such as Australia and Britain provide an effective appeals mechanism for rejected visitors and also offer a variety of different visa categories a special visa for retirees, for example, another for businesspeople as opposed to Canada's one-stop approach, which entails only a single visa category for all comers.
It's this one-size-fits-all approach, said Bellissimo. There's just no flexibility.
As for Sanabria, he has his work, his wife, a young daughter and another child due in August, all of which should keep him busy.
I'm very proud of my work in Peru, he said. I'm proud to be Peruvian. But, when I saw I couldn't travel to Canada, I felt I had been discriminated against. It made me sad.